Dystopia Now

Dubai Wants to Use Data to Become the 'Happiest City on Earth'

Dr. Aisha Butti Bin Bishr, director of Smart Dubai, tells us about the city's efforts to harvest customer data to improve government services. But who defines what happiness is?

Grennan Milliken

Image: Dr. Aisha Butti Bin Bishr

Dubai doesn't ever do anything halfway. They've got the tallest skyscrapers in the world, police that drive Lamborghinis, resorts on man made islands, and profound income inequality. In that spirit, city officials are now working on connecting and digitizing all aspects of urban life into a single platform. The goal is to make Dubai the most efficient and "happiest" city on Earth. Her Excellency Dr. Aisha Butti Bin Bishr, the director general of Smart Dubai—the office overseeing this grand plan—sat down with Motherboard at the Smart Cities NYC 2017 conference to explain it all.

Motherboard: How did the Smart Dubai Office come to be? What was the inspiration behind putting that department together?
Dr. Aisha Butti Bin Bishr: In 2001 our e-government initiative started. Our ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, so believed in the benefits we can have from implementing technology in our city. It was just the early stage of the global e-government wave, started in the US with President Bill Clinton. Most of the government entities here launched smart device applications to reach their clients, whether that was visitors or residents/citizens of Dubai.

But again, the ruler of Dubai decided that it's not enough to have our government services on our smart devices, but that we should have the whole city, whether that be government or the private sector, on board with the smart technologies—and here is where the smart city concept came. Our vision is to make Dubai the smartest and the happiest city and our mission is to implement that by utilizing innovative technologies to achieve our goal.

So the backbone of the Smart Dubai strategy is a single city-wide digital platform called the Smart City platform. Can you describe it a little bit? What is it?
We want to bring efficient, seamless, safe and impactful experiences across the city, so that's why we decided it would benefit all of us if we shared one digital platform.

The smart platform consists of different layers. It starts from the smart city infrastructure, wherein we ingest the data from different databases of the city. Then there is the application layer, wherein we provide government services based on this data.

So it functions like a smartphone app that anybody can access for government services? Who uses it?
Yes, it is called the Dubai Now Application, or the Dubai Now Platform and anybody can download it and use it for services like health, driving, residency visas, businesses, housing, education, security and justice, transportation—people can manage their day to day aspects and become more mindful about what's going on in the city around them.

But also we designed it for different types of people. For city managers, whether they be from government or from private sector; for entrepreneurs and startups who want to gain access to the city data; for researchers.

A couple years ago Smart Dubai released something called a "Happiness Meter," an application designed to gather data on citizens' level of happiness, presumably part of the program's original vision to make Dubai the "happiest city on earth." This is interesting. But could also be problematic. So first off, what is it?
As you know there is a United Nations happiness index report that's produced on a yearly basis. Our ruler, said "I can't wait year by year to know what is the level of happiness of my people. I want something that I can see instantly."

From there, we said ok so let us put in a platform everywhere [in this case an application on iPads or any type of touchscreen device] people transact services from the city that they can tell us how their experience was.

So when somebody goes to a government agency to get a license or something, they can also click on a happy, indifferent, or sad face on an iPad set up in the room before they leave. Are these meters only in government agencies, or no? Is it just for consumers or can workers rate their work experience too?
We started at first with the government and then we scaled it to the private sector so any coffee shop, any health service provider, any school, and institute, cinemas, hotels, you will find them. Every decision maker that runs that organization can see instantly the feedback from people. And he can compare this feedback with competitors. It won't say what his competitor is doing, but at least he will know his happiness ranking compared to other service providers in that sector.

Customer satisfaction with government and private sector services isn't quite a full measure of happiness. How do you define a happy city?
We don't know today actually what is the definition of happiness, you know, my happiness is different from your happiness. But there are certain needs that once they've been fulfilled for a person, his happiness level is improved. Government is mainly responsible for basic needs—we give housing, we make sure that the streets are designed well and that there is no traffic, we make sure you can get your services immediately wherever you are.

But when it comes to cognitive and deeper needs, we don't fully understand them. We want to discover these needs and hopefully change our policies, our systems, our services to fulfill these needs. The Happiness Meter is not the end of our story when it comes to happiness. We have an agenda to make sure everything we design and build in our city is around making people happier.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you see going forward for Smart Dubai when it comes to making your city happier and more efficient?
The challenge is not with the technology, because the technology is the least difficult thing to deal with. The challenge is with the people and the mindset. To run these smart cities we need smart people. Today cities are run by data. If you don't have proper knowledge about how to read data it will be very difficult for you. Because nowadays, it's the data economy. It's not even knowledge economy. What makes Facebook, Uber, AirBnB, Google, and Amazon is data. How to make sure that your people are skilled for the 21st century is the main challenge, I believe.

Lede image: Dr. Aisha Butti Bin Bishr

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